New Amsterdam’s First Laws: Drink Less, Fight Less

New Amsterdam was controlled by the Dutch from 1624 to 1664

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New Amsterdam, Now New York, on the Island of Manhattan by Johannes Vinckeboons Bettmann/CORBIS

Many of the earliest laws in New York City—back when it was New Amsterdam, in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands—were an attempt to control the unruly citizens of a backwater outpost.

“Fresh from battles in the West Indies," writes the New York City archives department, New Netherlands Director-General Peter Stuyvesant "found himself in an undisciplined settlement where drunkenness and fighting prevailed.”

He immediately issued his first official edict, which banned the sale of alcohol on Sunday before 2 p.m. and every day after 8 p.m., and enforced strict penalties for drawing a knife or sword in anger. 

The archives department recently put a number of important documents on display—including city ordinances in both the original Dutch and an accompanying English translation—as a window in the city founded in 1624 by the Dutch West India Company

Its Dutch heritage and laws made the culture in New Amsterdam different than in many other early American cities, says the New York State Library:

New Netherland developed into a culturally diverse and politically robust settlement. This diversity was fostered by Dutch respect for freedom of conscience. Furthermore, under Dutch rule, women enjoyed legal, civil, and economic rights denied their British counterparts in New England and Virginia. Towns within New Netherland were granted the protections and privileges of self-government. New Amsterdam, thus, became the first European-style chartered city in the thirteen original colonies that would comprise the United States.

New Amsterdam's citizens apparently took their freedom of conscience quite seriously: Stuyvesant's first order seems to have had little effect. On March 10, 1648, the director-general complained that “our former orders issued against unreasonable and intemperate drinking at night and on the Sabbath of the Lord, to the shame and derision of ourselves and our nation, are not observed and obeyed..." He rebounded with an eight-point ordinance on drinking, which noted that “one full fourth of the City of New Amsterdam has been turned into taverns” and required tavern owners to “engage in some other honest business” in addition to slinging booze.

New Amsterdam eventually grew up and put into place health codes and zoning laws. It came to an end on September 8, 1664, when Stuyvesant surrendered the city to the English, who rechristened the town New York.

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